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Lonely Planet Writer

Beyond the ancient capital: the best day trips from Kyoto

Renowned as the historic and cultural jewel of Japan, the enchanting city of Kyoto captivates visitors with its shrine-dotted streets and temple-laden paths. But should you have a thirst for a change of scenery, there are plenty of options. Japan’s ancient capital city sits in the heart of the Kansai region, home to some of the nation’s top destinations boasting magnificent castles, quaint shopping streets, lush hiking trails, and charming hot spring towns.

The following day trips from Kyoto can be reached within an hour or two by train. If you make several day trips by train within a five-day period, you may be able to save some cash by using the Kansai Wide Area Pass.

Peaceful parks and gardens in Nara

Famed for its inquisitive deer that roam the sprawling grounds of Nara Park (and have even been designated as a national treasure), the tranquil Nara City is home to some of Japan’s most historical sites, such as the massive Todaiji temple and the lantern-lined Kasuga Shrine. While making your way to leafy Nara Park, stroll through exquisite Japanese gardens at Yoshiki-en. At nearby Isui-en, see a prime example of shakkei – the Japanese concept of borrowed scenery – with Mt. Wakakusa rising up in the distance as the garden’s backdrop.

Getting there: From Kyoto Station, take a 55-minute rapid train on the JR Nara line to Nara Station.

Eat and shop till you drop in Osaka

Known in Japan as 'the nation's kitchen', Osaka’s motto 'kuidaore' literally means 'to eat oneself bankrupt'. Chow down on okonomiyaki (savoury pancakes) and takoyaki (fried octopus balls) along the Dotombori River. Try kushikatsu (fried meat and vegetable morsels on sticks) near the Tsutenkaku Tower in the kitschy, neon-lit neighbourhood of Shinsekai. Wind through the alleys of Ura-Namba to Torame Yokacho (Tiger Alley) where you can try myriad favourite dishes under one roof. After wandering the expansive grounds of the iconic Osaka Castle, browse boutique and vintage clothing shops in the hip hoods of Amerika-Mura, Horie, and Nakazakicho. If you want more bang for your buck, head to the Rinku Town outlets by the airport to grab a bargain.

Getting there: From Kyoto Station, take a 30-minute JR special rapid train bound for Himeji to Osaka Station. Bullet trains also run between Kyoto and Osaka.

White castle with black tiled roof above green trees and fields
Consider extending your day trip for a visit to Himeji Castle © Aleksandar Todorovic / Shutterstock

Harbourside and mountaintop excursions in Kobe 

Kobe has long been a cosmopolitan hotspot with an infusion of international influences. At the heart of Kobe lie the popular retail districts of Motomachi and Sannomiya. Wander uphill from Sannomiya Station to an area of tree-lined streets with a collection of old-style merchant houses, quaint cafes, and one-of-a-kind shops. The city boasts a well-established Chinatown, Nankinmachi, and nature is close by with Mt. Rokko – a popular hiking spot (featuring a cable car for those less inclined to hike) – towering over the narrow streets. If you happen to have extra time on your hands, consider a trip to the city of Himeji to visit the magnificent World Heritage Site of Himeji Castle.

Getting there: From Kyoto Station, take a JR Limited Express Super Hakuto train for 50 minutes to Sannomiya Station. This service only runs a few times a day, so check the Hyperdia train website in advance. To get to the Kobe Port area, take a short ride on the JR Kobe line to Kobe Station.

An orange shrine stands in the water with hills in the background
The Japanese floating shrine of Itsukushima © Sean Pavone / Shutterstock

Get a history lesson in Hiroshima 

The Kyoto to Hiroshima leg is a well-trodden path for visitors who want to see the Peace Memorial Park and museum dedicated to the history of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. A good pick-me-up after a tour through the museum is a trip over to the gorgeous little island of Miyajima, which is home to Itsukushima – a bright orange shrine rising out of the ocean. This is a celebrated scenic spot, considered one of the 'three great views of Japan'. There, you can wander through streets lined with machiya (old wooden townhouses), do plenty of souvenir shopping, eat grilled Hiroshima oysters on the street, and take a cable car up to the top of Mt. Misen for breathtaking views of the Seto Inland Sea.

Getting there: From Kyoto Station, take the 100-minute Shinkansen Nozomi bullet train to Hiroshima. To reach the ferry port from Hiroshima Station, take the JR Sanyo Line for 25 minutes to Miyajimaguchi Station.

Kayak or bike around Japan’s largest freshwater lake

Lake Biwa in neighbouring Shiga Prefecture is the perfect spot for a nature break with kayaking, stand-up paddle boarding, cycling, and lake cruises. The Biwaichi bike trails and road networks that circle Biwako make cycling an easy choice, and rental shops at Maibara Station are a convenient place to pick up a set of wheels. Ride south from Maibara to the charming little town of Hikone where you can climb up to Hikone Castle for spectacular views out over Lake Biwa. Or ride north to Nagahama, a town perched on the northeast coast of the lake with highlights including the reconstructed Nagahama Castle on the waterfront, the brewery Nagahama Roman Beer serving craft brews and omi-gyu beef sushi from the Lake Biwa region, and the impeccably manicured garden of Keiunkan.

Getting there: From Kyoto Station, take a one-hour rapid train or 19-minute bullet train on the JR line to Maibara Station.

Japanese couple wearing yukata (casual kimonos) and walking outside an onsen in Kinosaki
Sample the onsen in picturesque Kinosaki © Rei Imagine / Shutterstock

Soak in Kinosaki’s abundant hot springs

An atmospheric hot-spring town with seven public bathhouses and a whole host of private ones, Kinosaki is the ultimate relaxation getaway. The public baths are esteemed for their remedial properties and promises of good fortune. If you arrive in the picturesque canal town in the winter, enjoy a feast of snow crab freshly caught from the Sea of Japan. Many of the ryokans (traditional Japanese inns) serve delectable kaiseki (Japanese haute cuisine) multi-course crab meals, which are tasty works of art.

Getting there: From Kyoto Station, take the Limited Express Kinosaki train to Kinosaki Onsen Station. It takes around 2.5 hours. This train only runs a few times a day, so be sure to check the Hyperdia train website before travel.

A small wooden boat transports 6 people in conical hats down the narrow tree-lined river
A boat on the Kurashiki River © iStock / Getty Images Plus

Wander Kurashiki’s revered historic canal district 

Situated roughly 230km from Kyoto in Okayama Prefecture lies the historic canal town of Kurashiki, known for the white and grey walls of its residences and the willow trees dotted along the banks of the Kurashiki River. During the Edo period, this river formed key trade routes for Japanese merchants. In the 1600s the town's light-coloured buildings were rice stores and granaries that have now been restored as cafes, galleries, craft and pottery workshops, denim boutiques, and accommodation. Admire the historically preserved town centre of Bikan on a traditional boat tour of Kurashiki Canal, and then tuck into a plate of barazushi, a regional speciality of sticky rice topped with over a dozen ingredients, such as seafood from the Seto Inland Sea or vegetables like snow peas, carrots, and lotus root.

Getting there: From Kyoto Station, ride the Shinkansen Nozomi bullet train for one hour to Okayama Station then change to the JR Sanyo line to Kurashiki Station (approx 20 mins).

Need more inspiration? Here are some highlights of Japan's Kansai region.